Atlantic archive Fiction Issue 2005

Alfred Kazin on Hemingway

Most writers struggle to produce well-crafted sentences. But as the literary critic and author Alfred Kazin explained in 1964, for Hemingway the perfect sentence was almost an obsession.
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All his writing life Hemingway labored after that "true sentence." He sought, I think, the sentence that would have the primacy of experience, that would relive a single unit of experience. Hemingway had often been close to death, he always felt death to be near, and his prose, like the poetry of the seventeenth-century metaphysicals, sought to make the ultimate experience come close. Death might yet be recorded in the sentient flesh—as intimate a sensation as eating, drinking, and lovemaking. But the "true sentence" could be recognized only if it had the right cadence and the tease of subtlety in some culminating word. Hemingway wanted to unsettle the reader just enough to make him sit up and notice a different way of saying things.

"Hemingway as His Own Fable," by Alfred Kazin, June 1964

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